Rape, nude photos, racist behavior: Do fraternities make men behave badly?

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(CNN) — Despite roots in community service and brotherhood, inappropriate behavior at fraternities are so common that often, no one blinks an eye.

But a spate of recent disgraces — from racist lyrics to nude photos of incapacitated women — have prompted suspensions, expulsions and a much more serious look at what some fraternities really stand for.

“I happen to believe fraternities and sororities are a good thing. I happen to believe they do a lot of good work in society,” CNN political commentator Marc Lamont Hill said. “I know a lot about black Greek letter organizations that do a tremendous amount of service in the public interest. So I don’t want to dismiss all of it.”

But Frank Bruni, author of “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be,” said while we can’t stereotype fraternities, “we can take note of what they are.”

“And what they are is they are exclusive societies — many of them, not all of them — that let in like-minded individuals who can then exist in a very homogenous environment,” he said. “That strikes me as something that’s at odds with what we really want colleges to be.”

Here are some of the disturbing incidents that have made the news this month alone:


Kappa Delta Rho at Pennsylvania State University

Photos of nude women, some apparently passed out, were posted on a private Facebook page — allegedly by members of Penn State’s Kappa Delta Rho chapter.

A former member of Kappa Delta Rho alerted police to the page, telling them in January that it had been used by members to share photos of “unsuspecting victims, drug sales and hazing,” according to a copy of a police affidavit.

“No arrests are being made at this time,” State College Police Lt. Keith Robb said. “Unfortunately, we aren’t able to identify any suspects right now because the accounts on Facebook were sanitized, wiped clean.”

In the meantime, the chapter has been suspended for one year.


Sigma Chi at the University of Houston

The Sigma Chi chapter, as well as five students, have been suspended after alleged hazing. The university hasn’t released details of the hazing, but said that Houston police has turned over its findings to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. The DA will determine whether charges will be filed.

If the allegations are true, the five students could be expelled, University President Renu Khator said.

“I am shocked, dismayed and deeply disappointed that allegations of this nature have arisen on our campus,” Khator said. “I expect all of our students, regardless of whether they belong to a Greek organization, to understand the obligations they have as members of our community.”

Racist behavior

Sigma Alpha Epsilon at the University of Oklahoma

The university’s SAE chapter was shut down after video surfaced of members singing a racist chant on a bus.

“There will never be a ni**** SAE. You can hang him from a tree, but he can never sign with me. There will never be a ni**** SAE.”

The fallout was fast and intense: the university expelled at least two students, the fraternity’s national office closed the chapter, and some members have received death threats.

The fraternity’s national office has said it was looking into incidents involving other chapters.

“Several other incidents with chapters or members have been brought to the attention of the headquarters … and each of those instances will be investigated,” the national office said in a statement.

Sigma Alpha Epsilon at the University of Washington

University of Washington students are accusing fraternity members of offensive comments during a protest to raise awareness about racism last month.

“People were called monkeys and apes by members of SAE,” said Maggie Negussie, president of the university’s Black Student Union.

SAE’s university chapter denied the allegations, saying an investigation determined the culprits were not members of the fraternity. But the university said an investigation is underway.


Fraternities nationwide

“The Hunting Ground,” a CNN Films-produced documentary that comes out this Friday, is a startling expose of sexual assault on college campuses. The filmmakers found that fraternities, particularly SAE, featured fairly prominently.

“When we traveled around the country looking into researching the epidemic of assaults on our campuses, time and again we’d ask students, what have you heard on your campus, where is it dangerous? And they would say SAE,” filmmaker Amy Ziering told CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield. “And then we’d also ask, are there any nicknames for any of the fraternities on your campus and time and again they would say “sexual assault expected” is the nickname for SAE.”

“It wouldn’t surprise me that if that’s happening at one fraternity it would happen at others. Because what we found in our research is whenever we uncovered something happening somewhere, it wasn’t a one off, it wasn’t a unique situation,’ she added. “It actually was pretty much a blueprint for what is happening at fraternities across the country.”

Some similarities

Clearly these acts aren’t representative of all fraternities. But Bruni sees some similarities.

“You have to note that we have sexist behavior from organizations that are all male,” he said. ” We have racist behavior from organizations that are virtually all white. Those are not accidents.”

Several studies in the 1990s found that certain qualities of fraternities — an emphasis on hierarchy, superiority and high alcohol consumption — lend themselves to racism and sexual assault.

But some researchers have studied the positive stories about fraternities to learn what strategies those members use to be successful. Focusing solely on the negative doesn’t solve any problems, study author Shaun R. Harper said.

“What it takes for guys to be good is to be constantly reminded of the principles and values of the fraternities to which they pledge themselves,” Harper said.

A common strategy to disrupt improper behavior — without breaking the shared brotherhood — is to use the frat’s stated values as a mirror. These men ask questions like “Is this what we are really all about?”

It’s a question not just for frat brothers, but for the fraternities as a whole.

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